It has recently been reported that a 39-year-old woman (a mother-of-three died) died after immersing herself in a river as part of a cold water therapy session. The woman died after paramedics were called to attend a riverside in Derbyshire. The session was run by Kevin O’Neill of ‘Breatheolution’, whose previous clients include Coleen Rooney and actor Stephen Graham. The woman, who was visiting with two friends after paying up to £200 for a two-hour cold water therapy session, was rushed to hospital where she died.

Mr. O’Neill commented: “I am heartbroken. I’ve not slept and I’m finding it hard to process. I cannot stop thinking about her family. It’s tragic.” An inquest is expected to be opened into the woman’s death. East Midlands Ambulance Service said they were called to Bankside, in Bridgemont. “The caller reported a medical emergency,” a spokesperson said. “We sent a paramedic in a fast response car and a double-crewed ambulance. The air ambulance was also in attendance.”

Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, which was called to assist the paramedics, has warned people about the dangers of entering open water. “While we cannot and will not comment or speculate on the circumstances and cause of this tragic death, we would like to remind people of the dangers of entering open water and cold water shock,” said group manager Lee Williams.


Breatheolution’ has a website where a whole page is dedicated to its leader Kevin O’Neill. I wondered what qualifications Kevin has, but all it tells us about him is this: “I struggled for so long with alcohol and other substance abuse that something had to give, I lost my sister Yvonne in 2019 and I think it was enough trauma to make me think a lot more about my own life”

The website also explains what the cold water sessions are about:

1-2-1 Breath Coaching, practice & Cold water session (river or tank)

2 hours @ £110.00

These sessions are proving popular with those who are not keen on group sessions or just prefer to have a more personal experience. The 2-3 hour sessions will be tailored to you and your breathing and will include potentially life-changing tools and methods to allow you to witness your breathing and physiology differently in the future, its all about feeling and awareness.

Another section of the site is dedicated to celebrities who Kevin seems to have treated. And then there is a video of the treatment. What I did not find anywhere, however, are the conditions that Kevin claims to treat with his cold water therapy.

In any case, it would have been wise for Kevin to read up about the risks of cold water immersion (CWI) before going into business. Perhaps this review would have helped:

In 2012, an estimated 372,000 people (42 per hour) died from immersion, assumed to be drowning. Immersion is the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death, accounting for 7% of all such deaths (World Health Organization, 2014). These figures are underestimations owing to poor reporting in many Third World countries that have a high number of deaths. The data also do not include life-long morbidity caused by immersion-related injuries, estimated to be a much bigger numerical problem.

There is no strict definition of ‘cold water’. Given that some of the hazardous responses to cold water appear to peak on immersion somewhere between 15 and 10°C, it is reasonable to say that cold water is water <15°C (Tipton et al1991). However, the thermoneutral water temperature for a resting naked individual is ∼35°C, so it is possible for individuals to become very cold, with time, on immersion in water below this temperature. The corresponding temperature for those exercising (including shivering) is ∼25°C (Tipton & Golden, 1998).

Historically, the threat associated with CWI was regarded in terms of hypothermia or a reduction in deep body temperature below 35°C. This belief was established as a result of the Titanic disaster and supported by data obtained during maritime conflicts of World War II. However, more recently, a significant body of statistical, anecdotal and experimental evidence has pointed towards other causes of death on immersion. For example, in 1977 a Home Office Report revealed that ∼55% of the annual open water deaths in the UK occurred within 3 m of a safe refuge (42% within 2 m), and two-thirds of those who died were regarded as ‘good swimmers’. This evidence suggests more rapid incapacitation than can occur with whole-body cooling and consequent hypothermia.

The following four stages of immersion have been associated with particular risks (Golden & Hervey, 1981; Golden et al1991); the duration of these stages and the magnitude of the responses evoked within them vary significantly, depending on several factors, not least of which is water temperature:

  • Initial immersion (first 3 min), skin cooling;
  • Short-term immersion (3 min plus), superficial neuromuscular cooling;
  • Long-term immersion (30 min plus), deep tissue cooling (hypothermia); and
  • Circum-rescue collapse: immediately before, during or soon after rescue.

As a result of laboratory-based research, the initial responses to immersion, or ‘cold shock’, were identified as particularly hazardous (Tipton, 1989), accounting for the majority of immersion deaths (Tipton et al2014). These deaths have most often been ascribed to drowning, with the physiological responses of a gasp and uncontrollable hyperventilation, initiated by the dynamic response of the cutaneous cold receptors, resulting in the aspiration of the small volume of water necessary to initiate the drowning process (Bierens et al2016). Relatively little is known about the minimal rates of change of cold receptor temperature necessary to cause cold shock. The response has been reported to begin in water as warm as 25°C but is easy to suppress consciously at that temperature. In laboratory conditions, the respiratory frequency response (an indication of respiratory drive) peaks on naked immersion in a water temperature between 15 and 10°C, and is no greater on immersion in water at 5°C (Tipton et al1991). The corresponding average rates of change of chest skin temperature over the first 20 s of these immersions was 0.42 (water temperature 15°C), 0.56 (water temperature 10°C) and 0.68°C s−1 (water temperature 5°C). This suggests that an average rate of change in chest skin temperature between 0.42 and 0.56°C s−1 on the first 20 s of immersion is sufficient to evoke a maximal respiratory cold shock response.

More recently, it has been suggested (Shattock & Tipton, 2012) that a larger number of deaths than once thought may be attributable to arrhythmias initiated on immersion by the coincidental activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system by stimulation of cutaneous cold receptors around the body [sympathetic activation (cold shock)] and in the oronasal region on submersion or with wave splash [vagal stimulation (diving response)]. This ‘autonomic conflict’ is a very effective way of producing dysrhythmias and arrhythmias even in otherwise young and healthy individuals, particularly, but not necessarily, if a prolonged breath hold is involved in the immersion (Tipton et al1994). It seems that predisposing factors, such as long QT syndrome, ischaemic heart disease or myocardial hypertrophy, are necessary for fatal arrhythmias to evolve (Shattock & Tipton, 2012); many of these factors, including drug-induced long QT syndrome, are acquired. Non-fatal arrhythmias could still indirectly lead to death if they cause incapacitation and thereby drowning (Tipton, 2013). The hazardous responses associated with the cold shock response are presented in Fig. 2.

Figure 2. A contemporary view of the initial responses to immersion and submersion in cold water (‘cold shock’)

Based on: Tipton (1989); Datta & Tipton (2006); Tipton et al. (2010); Shattock & Tipton (2012). *Predisposing factors include channelopathies, atherosclerosis, long QT syndrome, myocardial hypertrophy and ischaemic heart disease. Reproduced with permission, from Tipton (2016a).

The problems encountered in short-term immersions are primarily related to physical incapacitation caused by neuromuscular cooling (Castellani & Tipton, 2015). The arms are particularly susceptible because of their high surface area to mass ratio. Low muscle temperatures affect chemical and physical processes at the cellular level. This includes metabolic rate, enzymatic activity, calcium and acetylcholine release and diffusion rate, as well as the series elastic components of connective tissues (Vincent & Tipton, 1988). Maximal dynamic strength, power output, jumping and sprinting performance are related to muscle temperature, with reductions ranging from 4 to 6% per degree Celsius reduction in muscle temperature down to 30°C (Bergh & Ekblom, 1979). At nerve temperatures below ∼20°C, nerve conduction is slowed and action potential amplitude is decreased (Douglas & Malcolm, 1955). Nerve block may occur after exposure to a local temperature of between 5 and 15°C for 1–15 min. This can lead to dysfunction that is equivalent to peripheral paralysis and can, again, result in drowning owing to the inability to keep the airway clear of the water (Clarke et al1958; Basbaum, 1973; Golden & Tipton, 2002; Fig. 3).

Figure 3. The ‘physiological pathways to drowning’ after immersion or submersion in cold water, with possible interventions for partial mitigation (dashed)

Abbreviations: EBA, emergency breathing aid; IS, immersion suit; and LJ, lifejacket. Reproduced with permission, from Tipton (2016b).

Even in ice-cold water, the possibility of hypothermia does not arise for at least 30 min in adults. Hypothermia affects cellular metabolism, blood flow and neural function. In severe hypothermia, the patient will be deeply unconscious. The progressive signs and symptoms (approximate deep body temperature) are shivering (36°C), confusion, disorientation, introversion (35°C), amnesia (34°C), cardiac arrhythmias (33°C), clouding of consciousness (33–30°C), loss of consciousness (30°C), ventricular fibrillation (28°C) and death (25°C) (Bierens et al2016). There is great variability between deep body temperature and the signs and symptoms of hypothermia. For example, although the deep body temperature associated with death is often quoted as 25°C, the lowest temperature recorded to date after accidental exposure to cold (air) and with full recovery was 12.7°C in a 28-month-old child (Associated Press, 2014). The coldest adult survivor of CWI followed by submersion had a body temperature of 13.7°C (Gilbert et al2000). There is also a large amount of variation in the rate at which people cool on immersion in cold water, owing to a combination of thermal factors (including water temperature and water movement, internal and external insulation) and non-thermal factors (including body size and composition, blood glucose, motion illness, racial and sex differences; Haight & Keatinge, 1973; Gale et al1981; White et al1992; Mekjavic et al2001; Golden & Tipton, 2002).

The most significant practical consequence of hypothermia in water is loss of consciousness; this prevents individuals from undertaking physical activity to maintain a clear airway and avoid drowning. Thus, once again, drowning is often the end-point (Fig. 3).

About 17% of those who die as a result of immersion die immediately before, during or after rescue (Golden et al1991). The deaths immediately before rescue are intriguing and probably related to behavioural changes at this time or the relief and psychophysiological alterations associated with imminent rescue, including a reduction in circulating stress hormone concentration and an increase in vagal tone. Death during rescue is most commonly associated with a collapse in arterial pressure when lifted vertical from the water and kept in that position for some time (Golden et al1991).


The tragic death of the woman should perhaps remind us that

  • there is no SCAM or wellness treatment that is entirely harmless,
  • and there are only few ‘would-be gurus’ who know what they are doing.

3 Responses to A tragic death by cold water therapy

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